The Death Letter Project
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Natalie Grace | Mortician / Trainee Embalmer

I’ve always had the view that once someone dies, that’s it, we don’t see them again. Working as a mortician, who has prepped over 7,000 bodies, means I’ve seen different causes of death; from the peaceful to the most violent trauma. Rarely do they stay with me, rarely do I have triggers.

But one thing remains the same in my mind: the body is simply a machine to take us through life. Once a person dies, the essence of that person is gone. Once death occurs, the body is an empty shell. 

When my father died 2½ years ago, it was a shock. Despite other morticians telling me they could never do invasive procedures on their loved ones, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t. Mentally, I had to prepare myself for the worst as dad had been at the coroner for a week. A lot can happen to a corpse in a week. On the day of the prep, it was difficult walking into a mortuary that wasn’t my own, using instruments and equipment I wasn’t familiar with. I remember seeing dad naked on the embalming table, and wailing. The way my dad had been b̶u̶t̶c̶h̶e̶r̶e̶d̶  re-sutured after autopsy was one of the worst I’d seen. His neck and chest were over packed and distorted.  He didn’t look like the fit, full of life, loving man I remembered.

I managed to pull myself together and get into mortician mode. I put on a Fleetwood Mac CD - my soundtrack for prepping family members - and washed his body, taped up his sutures and dressed him in the suit he wore to Anzac Day only weeks earlier. I inserted his eye caps, packed his nose and sutured his mouth closed. A perfect mouth suture; no dimple under the chin, no joker grin.

His scalp suture from where they’d removed the top of his skull was leaking. Many times I’d un-sutured, removed and cauterised the skull and scalp and re-sutured on other bodies. But with my own dad I wasn’t sure so I opted for glue and tape instead.  It’s a decision I struggle with. Would I have mentally recovered if I’d taken my dad’s skull apart and seen it empty inside? Should I have prepped him like I would a stranger? Did I take short cuts on my dad because I was a coward?

I didn’t cry during the preparation. But I fell apart putting the lifter straps under his body and lowering him into his coffin. I spent an hour looking at him in his suit lying in the coffin. I touched his face and kissed his cheek. I knew it was him, I knew it was my dad’s body. But I knew he wasn’t with me in the mortuary. I was alone in the room with his shell.

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Comments

I just heard about this on CBC radio and as a healthcare worker, I find this very intriguing and I think this is a topic that needs to be talked about more in our society! - tinkersnthings (Instagram)

Oh wow great !!! - sierramalevich (Instagram)